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Co-Op Collectibles | Urban Omnibus

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Since the early 1970s, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) has played an important role in creating and preserving permanently affordable housing in New York City. In the wake of widespread property abandonment by landlords in low-income neighborhoods, a self-help housing movement organized residents to take control of buildings that had passed into city ownership. Local homesteaders reinvented undervalued spaces — from brownstones and former tenements to large apartment buildings — as cooperatively owned homes. While determined residents used their own labor, or “sweat equity,” to take housing into their own hands, UHAB (along with other homesteading groups) helped provide tools and training for everything ranging from replacing old pipes, to navigating the city’s multiple programs and legal mechanisms for establishing co-ops. Today, the legacy of this work is writ large in the nearly 1,300 resident-controlled co-ops across New York City.

But UHAB’s mark can be measured in smaller ways as well. Since its beginnings, the organization has accrued a sizable collection of artifacts from the homesteading movement: training manuals and annual reports, photographs and flyers, cookbooks and comic strips created by co-op residents. “For years, we had these boxes, in no particular order, carrying what we thought was just old junk,” notes Rania Dalloul of UHAB. “And then eventually we sorted through it and thought this would make a really great archive project.” Sensing an opportunity to tell the larger story of self-help housing through these unique objects, Dalloul and Clara Weinstein, along with other UHAB staff, reached out to Interference Archive, an organization in Brooklyn dedicated to exploring the relationship between cultural production and movements. Archivist and public historian Maggie Schreiner, graphic designers Greg Mihalko and Lulu Johnson, and a team of other Interference Archive volunteers, activist architects, and students from Schreiner’s Community Archives course at New York University, collaborated with UHAB to develop what would become the exhibition “Building for Us: Stories of Homesteading and Cooperative Housing,” on view at Interference Archive through February 2, 2020.

We sat down with a handful of the project’s large curatorial team to take a closer look at UHAB’s collection of co-op curios. Beyond their historical significance, Mihalko notes that these artifacts help illustrate “the ways that people organized, and what they made as a result of that organizing, and how we can learn from that in our own organizing or lives now.”

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